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Punctuation with “The question is…” '.', '?' or ' “… ?” '
Position of question mark when sentence doesn't end with question
How do I punctuate a question within a statement?

My son, who is in fourth grade, wrote the following sentence in response to a story he'd read: "Another question I had was why were people swimming with dolphins." His teacher gave him no credit for this sentence. She contended that the sentence must conclude with a question mark. I believe that the sentence represents a declaration and not a question, and that the concluding period is appropriate and correct. Would someone kindly help?

  • 6
    This is actually a lose/lose situation for any merely rational argument; it comes down to convention. You are right that the sentence is a declaration, but the complement of the verb was is a question, and that does demand a question mark -- which convention holds "overrides" the period. Perhaps if your son masters the subtleties of @daxelrod's response and shows his teacher he has done so, she will restore his credit. At the very least, he'll learn something, and maybe she will, too! Oct 2 '12 at 2:08
  • Technically the sentence is not a question. As such the teacher is justified in rejecting it. The pupil must learn to distinguish between presenting a question and making a statement about a question.
    – Kris
    Oct 2 '12 at 5:15
  • Am I the only one who doesn't find anything wrong with the sentence? It is not a question, so it shouldn't have a question mark. There are many other similar and acceptable ways to begin this sentence: "I couldn't understand why...", "I also asked why...", "My other question was why..."...
    – djeidot
    Oct 3 '12 at 10:01

I contend that the sentence needs slightly more editing than just the punctuation mark at the end.

Reword slightly, to leave the sentence as a declaration:

Another question I had was why people were swimming with the dolphins.

Avoid changing words, but make it clearer what the question was:

Another question I had was, "Why were people swimming with dolphins?"

  • 1
    +1, good answer. Actually, the meaning is slightly different between these two sentences. Suppose I went to the beach yesterday, and I saw people swimming with dolphins. My question at the time was, "Why are people swimming with dolphins?" When I report this later, it becomes My question was why people were swimming with dolphins. I could say My question was, "Why were people swimming with dolphins?" The last implies that the swimming occurred before I had the question, but the indirect-speech version does not.
    – user16269
    Oct 2 '12 at 4:18
  • 3
    There is nothing wrong with that fourth grader's original word order, and rather your version is akward. In embedded questions that are being indirectly quoted, you reverse the subject and auxiliary. The word order you propose is more for an ordinary relative clause: I could not understand why people were swimming with the dolphins. Here, we cannot have the subject-aux inversion I could not understand why were people swimming with the dolphins. That inversion marks the clause as a question. But if you introduce a clause with "A question I had", then what follows should be a question!
    – Kaz
    Oct 2 '12 at 4:59
  • 2
    Direct quotes must be read in a special way: you give a pause and then you act out the dialogue to make it clear it is verbatim. Such quotes are usually introduced by making it clear someone said that exact thing. And then I asked him, "Why were people swimming with dolphins?" It is quite awkward to introduce a question indirectly, thereby distancing oneself from it somewhat ("Another question I had was,") but then pause and enunciate the question as it was originally posed. I mean, it's not unheard of, but there has to be some context which makes it important to present it that way.
    – Kaz
    Oct 2 '12 at 5:04
  • What about "Then I thought, Why were people swimming with dolphins?" I have read that internal monologues can omit the quotes but still use a question mark.
    – ak84
    Oct 2 '12 at 21:38

The sentence your son wrote contains an embedded question:

why were people swimming with dolphins

that would end with a question mark were it written like this:

Another question I had was this: "Why were people swimming with dolphins?"

or this:

Another question I had was, "Why were people swimming with dolphins?"

Perhaps the teacher wanted one of those sentences, or perhaps she wanted the sentence to read thus:

"Another question I had was why people were swimming with dolphins."

The latter is an indirect question in normal indirect question word order. What your son wrote is also an acceptable (to me, at least, in informal spoken and written English) indirect question written in normal WH-question word order, which is probably what made it appear to the teacher that the entire sentence is a direct question. Either way it's written, a question mark is incorrect because the question is a subordinate clause in a longer declarative sentence.

Another question I had was why were people swimming with dolphins?

This seems wrong to me: it's incorrectly punctuated (the "?" is wrong). It's best to change the word order.

Another link to examples of embedded questions is this one.

The relevant information is this:

"Kate [a copy editor] moves on to the second sentence: The question is, how many re-readings are reasonable? Uncertain about how to treat a question ('how many re-readings are reasonable?') embedded in a sentence, she picks up [The Chicago Manual of Style] . . . [and] decides to apply the following conventions:

  • The embedded question should be preceded by a comma.
  • The first word of an embedded question is capitalized only when the question is long or has internal punctuation.
  • A short informal embedded question begins with a lowercase letter.
  • The question should not be in quotation marks because it is not a piece of dialogue.
  • The question should end with a question mark because it is a direct question.
  • Since the author has followed all these conventions, Kate changes nothing."

(Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook. Univ. of California Press, 2006)

Notice, however, that in the example with the copyeditor, the sentence is declared to be a question. In your son's sentence, a declarative sentence, he is merely informing the reader that he had a question. I think the teacher should have told your son that changing the word order would have made his sentence perfectly grammatical instead of ambiguous and questionable. Look at these two examples:

  1. I asked her why people were swimming with dolphins.
  2. The question is why people were swimming with dolphins.


  1. I asked her, "Why were people swimming with dolphins?"
  2. The question is why were people swimming with dolphins?

The first two are indirect questions and the second two are direct questions expressed as dialog in the first and as a direct question in a sentence declared to be a question in the second. The word order is different. The first two take no question mark, but the second two do. English is a word-order language. Change the word order, and the rules change.

In any case, I find the teacher's response too simplistic and dictatorial. It's not as black-and-white as her statement makes it seem. She offers no explanations of how your son could have written the sentence so that it wouldn't need a question mark, or why she believes that it's a question rather than a declarative statement. In other words, she wasn't teaching anybody anything, only demanding that she be obeyed because she knows best.

  • 1
    This is a much better answer than mine.
    – daxelrod
    Oct 2 '12 at 3:01
  • @daxelrod: Thank you, but mine's just longer & more complete. Yours is brief & to the point. There's virtue in both. (StoneyB likes your answer. I do too.) They make the same point, only yours does so in no more words than necessary for most of the high-level commentators here. I wrote for a different audience: the OP, the son, & the son's English teacher, who will need all the documentation to be convinced that she fell down on the job. Forty years an English teacher, always an English teacher! Soon Reg Dwight or another high-level guy will edit my answer.
    – user21497
    Oct 2 '12 at 3:34

"I had also questioned why people were swimming with dolphins."


"I had also questioned why people swam with dolphins."

Depending upon the overall writing style of the essay, You child's may find it the best to avoid tripling the past-tense participles ("had", "was", and "were").

...If you do not reword with the quoted section, as many people have presented.

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